September 9, 2007

Authentic Christianity

Posted in The Church at 3:17 pm by Caleb Winn


And I must be an acrobat

To talk like this and act like that

~ Acrobat, by U2

Christians are often called hypocrites because of the enormous gulf between what we believe and how we actually live. Straddling this gap requires a certain degree of acrobatic flexibility, as identified by U2. It is easy to grow angry at the man who praises God with the same mouth that he uses to belittle his wife. And it is easy to feel that our own worship is disingenuous when we see our own sin. I am an ungracious man, who claims to live for grace. How can I talk like this, if I know that I will turn around and act like that?

The problem is that God’s goodness and our own wretchedness stand in tension with each other. Hypocrisy is bad, so it seems as if we ought not speak graciously while living in sin. We ought not talk about morality and goodness and the glory of God if we harbor bitterness and lust in the secret places of our hearts.

In order to alleviate this tension and resolve this contradiction, there are two possible alternatives, both of which are wrong. These errors are the false righteousness of the Pharisees, and the despair of Judas Iscariot.

There is also a Biblical model of the correct response, which is the penitent humility of the Tax Collector in Jesus’ parable.

Whitewashed Tombs

The first error is that of the pharisees, who claimed moral perfection, and whose faith was about standing on their own merits before God. They spoke very highly of God’s law, but did not understand their own shortcomings. By claiming to be without sin, they escaped the clutches of divine forgiveness, and so resigned themselves to damnation. They did not realize that Grace lives in the gulf between sin and salvation.

We can be tempted to praise God, but ignore or disguise sin within our lives. Since we claim to serve a great redeemer, we want to appear to be greatly redeemed. Such an attitude says true things about God, but conceals the truth about ourselves. The “everything is ok!” Christianity is decidedly inauthentic, and it is problematic for many reasons.

First, we must recognize sin in our lives in order to recognize God’s grace to us. We have been forgiven much, and our gratitude and worship should increase proportionally as we recognize just how much we have been forgiven. Refusing to admit that we still sin is implicitly refusing to admit that we need God’s grace, and it hardens our hearts to the mystery and glory of the gospel.

Second, we must recognize sin in our lives in order to be sanctified, and freed from sin. Internal repentance and external accountability are essential for overcoming areas of sin. If I am an alcoholic or a bitter man, but refuse to admit that to myself and to my community, then I will not be able to repent and overcome the sin that damages my soul.

Third, we must confess sin within the community of believers in order to strengthen and encourage each other’s faith. The honest confession of sin is an instrument of God’s grace within the church. If I pretend to have no sin, and hide that successfully, then the external, legalistic moralism will only spread poison within the church. If I praise God’s grace, but act ungraciously, that will hurt those around me. When that happens (and believe me, it does happen!) it is appropriate to confess sin, and seek forgiveness, and not to pretend that nothing is wrong.

Field of Blood

The other error is the one committed by Judas Iscariot who, having betrayed his Lord with a kiss, was so overwhelmed by grief that he took his own life. He was so aware of the depth of his sin that he could not conceive of redemptive grace. Though he would admit his sin, unlike the pharisees, he was incapable of accepting forgiveness. He was so focused on his own depravity that he could not see God, and so resigned himself to damnation as well.

I’ve already written about the dangers of engaging in self-destruction as a means of evading true love-based guilt and repentance. The idea here is that when we focus on our sin, and do not see God’s grace, we come to believe that we are beyond the power of divine redemption. We think of ourselves as all-bad, and do not claim goodness, nor associate ourselves with the name of God. In order to avoid the hypocrisy of trying unsuccessfully to be good, we simply give up, and wallow in our own depravity. This attitude is problematic as well.

First, it simply is not true. God’s grace is far greater than our sin, and to deny His grace is to deny Him. Recognizing our sin should drive us toward God, and not away from Him, for only through recognizing our dependence on God can we embrace the life of the Spirit.

Second, this self-punishment is completely narcissistic, and isn’t even really rooted in love or concern for those against whom we have sinned. Our inability to perceive God’s grace reflects an excessive, even obsessive focus on our own lives, which is itself a sinful state of self-idolatry.

Third, this despair is purposeless, leaving only physical and/or spiritual suicide as outcomes. There is no room for sanctification or spiritual regeneration if we think that any movement towards grace is a sinful act of hypocrisy. We cannot come to know life, if we think that we are essentially, irreparably dead.

The Middle Road: The Tax Collector

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

The Pharisee prays loudly, really praising his own virtue and external morality. He commits the first error I identified, in that he is unable to humbly recognize his need before God.

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, does recognize his sinfulness and depravity. But unlike Judas Iscariot, he does not commit the error of believing himself to be beyond redemption. This humble tax collector realizes his own sin, but simultaneously recognizes the grace of a glorious God. He cries out, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This simple statement of a broken man is the essence of redemption. Unlike the Pharisee, he recognizes his sin. And unlike Judas, he recognizes that there is a God who will show mercy on him, a sinner. A God who is far greater than his own sense of remorse.

God, have mercy on me. A sinner.

The Redemptive Process

We ought to do our best to reconcile our lives with our beliefs. In order to do this, it is important to hold an honest view of both God’s goodness and our own depravity, and seek to bring out lives, attitudes, and actions in line with our belief and our worship. We must say true things about God, and also say true things about ourselves. Through holding these two in tension, we can become progressively sanctified.

I think that both the error of the Pharisee and the error of Judas lies in not recognizing that redemption is a lifelong process. It’s not about Being Good, or Being Bad, as if those were absolute and unalterable states. It is about Becoming good, progressively letting go of our shameful sin and turning to God for grace. I am not a static identity, but rather a person in flux, at times gracious and at times not. I am not defined by my virtue or my wickedness, but am the product of a dynamic interchange between the two, defined by turning to grace in the midst of sin, and praising God when I realize how far I have fallen. The sometimes enormous gulf between my words and actions does not represent true hypocrisy, but rather reflects the heart of a man in flux, showing who I am, and who I want to be.


1 Comment »

  1. Great point about Judas — I honestly never thought of it in that light. He could have had forgiveness, but didn’t. This in itself was nothing but a magnification of his original sin against Christ.

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